It’s hard to know how to support a friend or loved one with mental illness. Those of us who live with a mental condition know this. I imagine for my husband and family it must, at times, feel like they are negotiating a treacherously booby-trapped, Indiana Jones-style maze, where one false move can send a boulder of despair or rage crashing down on all of us.
“Tell me what to do or say,” the hapless bystander might plead, wishing desperately to help but unsure how. In those moments, when I’m at my lowest or most afraid, deep in the grips of anxiety disorder or PTSD or chronic depression, this well-meaning request feels like another stone in my basket. I am unable to assume the role of emotional GPS and guide us out of the quagmire.
There are, however, some simple guidelines that can help make my world feel safer.
1. Stop using ableist speech.
Words like “crazy,” “mental,” “retarded,” etc. even when used in joking or affectionate context never feel casual to a person who is living with mental illness. Instead, it lets us know that you, the speaker, might be a landmine full of buried hostility and disdain. That you are a potential source of pain. Don’t ever assume that your intentions mitigate your use of derisive speech, or that the person you are addressing is not being adversely affected, even if they are laughing and smiling along. Just don’t. It’s a pain in the ass to learn new ways of thinking and speaking, hence all the complaints about “political correctness.” But the truth is, this has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with empathy and humanity. Surely, we can bear a bit of temporary discomfort to make the world a more compassionate place.
2. Believe reported symptoms and experiences.
Many sufferers of invisible illnesses find it a huge challenge to live with an experience that is not visually evident. A broken leg may garner more sympathy and validation than a bipolar episode or a bout of depression. If someone tells you that they are struggling or in pain, believe them. Do not minimize. It’s hard to witness another person’s suffering, but you can do it.
3. Listen and validate rather than focusing on responding and solving.
Now that you’ve told your friend or loved one that you believe them, stay in that moment and listen to them, with the intent of understanding. You may not have much to say back. That’s preferable to platitudes. Don’t underestimate the comfort your attentive presence can give. Also: remember that attention does not require you to offer a response or a solution. Active listening is tremendously validating for the person suffering. Reflect what they are saying back to them (“Wow, that is really difficult”), ask questions that show you are following and want to know more detail (“How did you feel when she said that?”), and look at them while they are speaking even if they find it hard to look at you.
4. Allow space but remain present.
Sometimes, the person suffering may not want to talk or be touched, but they may not want to be left alone, either. Be near. Let them know you are not going anywhere and that you will check on them to see if they need anything. It lets the person know that you respect their boundaries but are not abandoning them.
5. Don’t take it personally.
Mental illness is not an excuse for the sufferer to be abusive or to mistreat you. However, do not take it personally if your friend or loved one does not respond to or cannot accept the comfort you want to offer. Understand that their pain is not yours to heal and that it is not a reflection upon you if they are struggling. Do not become defensive if they tell you something you are doing or saying is hurtful (what is triggering or harmful to someone who is mentally ill may not seem logical to a neurotypical person). When you become defensive, you make it about you. It isn’t. We know that, and we want you to know that.
6. Educate yourself.
Use the magic Google machine! Find books! Don’t make the sick person do all the mental labor. If your friend says she has PTSD, it’s good to ask what that is like for her, so that you can understand her individual experience, but it’s also very helpful if you read an article or three, so she doesn’t have to constantly explain what her struggle is while she is struggling.
7. Don’t try to relate.
It’s human nature to try to connect another person’s experience with your own. However, you may be unintentionally minimizing the experience of your mentally ill friend and/or hijacking their effort to share with you. If you find yourself tempted to say, “I know what you mean!” or something of that sort, stop yourself. A better way to show support is to ask, “What is that like for you? Tell me more.” No two people experience mental illness in the same way, even if they have the same condition.
8. See the person, not the illness.
Remember, always, that you are dealing with your friend who happens to have a mental illness. You are not addressing the illness; you are addressing the person. That person is there, even when the illness is prevalent. You can help your loved one by letting them know that YOU know they are still there. They have not disappeared beneath the waves.
Mental illness is hard to live with and even harder, perhaps, to witness. But it doesn’t have to be scary or isolating. When we remain present with each other and focus on understanding and connection, we create an environment of hope and healing.